This post contains full spoilers for Mindhunter Season Two, which Netflix released on Friday.
“Seems to me, everything you know about serial killers has been gleaned from the ones who’ve been caught,” convicted murderer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) tells Mindhunter heroes Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) midway through the Netflix drama’s second season. Kemper is trying to insert himself into one of Ford and Tench’s ongoing investigations, but the line also plays as something of a meta comment on Mindhunter Season One. In that original batch of episodes, inspired by the pioneering real-life work of John E. Douglas that helped invent the science of criminal profiling, Ford and Tench assisted in a few active cases. Mostly, though, they looked backwards by chatting up incarcerated monsters like Kemper and Richard Speck to learn what they could about catching future ones. It was a crime procedural about the invention of the procedure itself by a trio of wary allies: unstable genius Ford, skeptical veteran agent Tench, and civilian psychiatrist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv).
The show’s first season, which debuted nearly two years ago, had the benefit of freshness, both in its own approach and the one being developed by Ford, Tench, and Carr. Prestige TV has been overflowing with serial-killer drama over the last few decades, most of them with the same shared tics, fetishes, and predilection for celebrating the grisliness of it all. By going back to criminal profiling’s earliest day, and by focusing on Ford and Tench’s conversations with killers who were (mostly) no longer a threat to anyone, Mindhunter was able to strip the genre of its schlockiest elements and make the subject matter interesting and scary in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.
This belated second season doesn’t have that novelty going for it. Though we see Ford, Tench, Carr, and less respected team member Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) conducting interviews with old killers to help expand and perfect the science, the basics are already well established. So Season Two — with a new writing team and a remarkable trio of directors in David Fincher, Andrew Dominik, and Carl Franklin — tries to expand its approach in a few ways. First, it puts the team’s theories into more extended practice by having Ford help investigate the Atlanta Child Murders, a gruesome series of violent abductions of African-American kids that played out in real life from 1979-81. And second, it attempts to make the work more personal to the other members of the team by giving Tench and Carr subplots that draw harsh parallels between their work and home lives.
It’s an understandable approach. Season One had already dealt extensively with the emotional toll the work takes on Ford. He opens this season in a mental hospital coping with the trauma of his most recent meeting with Kemper, but is more or less on the rails after that. (He continues his habit of offending most of the people he meets — particularly those in power — but that’s something you get even when he’s completely healthy.) That original batch of episodes was so tilted towards Ford, with Carr and especially Tench largely used as foils to his erratic brilliance, that it’s easy to understand the creative team wanting to flesh out the other two leads and give Torv and McCallany more to do. But the results are mixed.
Tench spends much of the season focusing on his unraveling family, after learning that his son Brian (Zachary Scott Ross) was present when several older kids unwittingly killed a toddler — and that Brian then suggested they crucify the boy. (It was meant to try to revive the child, Christ-style, but resembles the kinds of horrific tableaux that Tench has come to know so well through work.) This not only leaves him frequently absent from work, but makes him distracted and suggestible when he’s there. During the interview with Charles Manson, for instance, he loses his temper thinking about sociopaths (like Manson, and possibly like the older boys) who manipulate others into participating in despicable acts. Yet the work keeps him so busy that his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) feels like he’s barely helping at all through this crisis.
Carr, meanwhile, is frustrated that Ford and Tench are on the road so often, rather than helping her codify and expand their research. While they work cases, she’s stuck in the Quantico basement — and in the closet, since her sexuality is professionally unacceptable. (And not that far removed historically from being treated as a mental health disorder by her own field of expertise.) She starts a new relationship with bartender Kat (Lauren Glazier), and is able to use a story of a past affair with a woman — which Gregg and the others assume she invented on the spot — to try to bond with a gay man who recruited a serial killer’s victims. But she and Kat both have emotional walls that are hard to take down, and in the meantime Wendy has to pose as straight at work, and fend off many unwanted male advances without drawing attention to herself.
The Carr story is the more successful of the two, even if it’s easy to feel as frustrated as Wendy herself that she’s so marginalized in this year’s stories. (Right after she develops a taste for interviewing killers in Ford and Tench’s absence, she’s ordered to stay back at Quantico to focus on the bigger picture.) Torv nimbly pivots around the various layers of Carr’s work and home personalities, and the link between the two feels more natural, particularly when Wendy dumps Kat in a fit of self-loathing over how Wendy herself has to pretend to be something she’s not around the men in her life.
McCallany is terrific at portraying how helpless and afraid the big, strong, and seemingly unflappable Tench becomes over the course of the season. But the crisis with Brian feels way too manufactured, particularly when contrasted with the very real events being dramatized down in Atlanta. It’s the kind of arc lots of procedurals resort to in order to create emotional stakes for the characters and the audience. But it’s hard to pull off gracefully, and the shifts between what Bill and Nancy are dealing with and what Bill and Holden are doing farther south usually feel jarring, as if the channel temporarily changed to some other series McCallany is also starring in. (The arc’s concluding scene, where Tench returns from Atlanta to find his wife and son have moved out and taken all their possessions, is a familiar one from antihero dramas about various professions, but particularly cops.)
Unsurprisingly, Season Two functions best when it focuses on the job and the complicated racial and political dynamics at work down in Atlanta. It’s to Ford’s credit that, when he’s introduced to a few of the victims’ mothers under the pretense of what he thought was a date, he instantly wants to help. But his professional tunnel vision makes it difficult for him to understand why city officials don’t want him involved (to risk publicizing a predator), nor later why so many of the locals are upset that he focused his attentions on black suspects. The season goes out of its way to establish how he develops that criminal profile — then smartly lets African-American colleague Jim Barney (Albert Jones) point out the flaws in his logic — even as it makes clear that it is just coming across as another case of racial profiling to this community.
The season ends, as the case did in real life, on a deeply frustrating note: Wannabe music producer Wayne Williams (Christopher Livingston) appears to be responsible for many of the child murders, but is only charged with two adult killings, and the investigations are shut down before the families can get any closure. Ford’s superiors celebrate it as a huge victory for their new scientific approach to serial murders, even as he doesn’t feel especially thrilled about any of it. Like Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s a potent, depressing reminder of how little we can know even when we have so much information in front of us.
On the whole, this season feels like a transitional one for the show (assuming it doesn’t become the latest victim of Netflix’s new “Do we really need more than two seasons of anything?” approach). Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti), the BTK killer, continues to lurk in the background, mostly appearing in pre-credits teasers that promise his path will eventually cross our heroes’, but that will have to wait for at least another year. And even the Atlanta case doesn’t seem like tremendous proof of the team’s methods, since it’s old-fashioned stakeout work that introduces them to Williams.
The series continues to look amazing and feel unnerving throughout. But if we keep following this story deeper into the techniques that Ford, Tench, and Carr are developing, Mindhunter is eventually going to land in the same narrative territory already covered extensively by all the movies and TV shows inspired by the real version of this work. While it mostly hangs together for now, there are already more signs of strain than there were back in 2017.
Some other thoughts:
* There is typecasting, and then there is Justified alum Damon Herriman playing Charles Manson in two different high-profile projects this summer. Herriman’s in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood so briefly that you might not recognize him as the same guy in both Quentin Tarantino’s film and this season’s fifth episode. But if you do realize that the former Dewey Crowe is both Mansons, it becomes an amusing and unavoidable distraction from the scene where Tench loses his temper with the infamous cult leader.
* Also in the distracting casting category, but only at first: Michael Cerveris plays Tench and Ford’s new boss Ted Gunn, and periodically shares scenes with his former Fringe co-star Anna Torv. Gunn becomes enough of a character — and a rather large departure from his Fringe role as the Observer — that it mostly stops being weird seeing the two of them together in another show about the FBI.
* Ed Kemper was the breakout character of Season One, and many shows would contort themselves this way and that to have Ford continually return to seek new insight from the guy. Instead, Mindhunter has the restraint to have him appear only once, and mainly to illustrate the difference between those who do their own killing and those like Manson who manipulate others into doing it.